Thanks to Tom Livingstone for the words and to Uisdean Hawthorn for the images. The original version of this story first appeared on Tom's blog, here.
‘What do you think?’
I turn to Uisdean and look him square on. It’s still snowing: thick icing sugar which coats our jackets and drowns our hopes. Spindrift washes down the mountain, small avalanches of excuses. It hisses and tumbles over cliffs until blown into the air by the updraft. It looks like the mountain is coming alive, shaking off a winter coat.
I think this is shit, but we should continue because I can’t face going down yet.
‘What do you think?’ This is the trouble with alpinism. There is so much thinking in the present, so many thoughts from the past. I can talk myself into trying a route. I can just as easily talk myself out of it. It could be lethal if we continue. It could be lethal if we don’t.
We have just climbed over the bergschrund on the Andromeda Strain, an alpine route in the Canadian Rockies. I think the mountain looks terrible, not like the bluebird photos of styrofoam ice. It’s covered in powder snow and virtually devoid of ice. The waves of spindrift look like a bad water feature. The weather is Scottish - snowing, wading, windy, warm. ‘Why can’t we just have nice weather?’
We have agreed, as we agree almost every time, to continue until we can’t go any further. We should climb until we are forced to stop. But here, barely a pitch up the route, we stop, think and talk.
I hate going down empty-handed. But the mountains take no notice. They are simply lumps of rock (very chossy rock, in the case of the Rockies). We don’t conquer and we don’t smash. We just try to climb - and sometimes, if we’re very lucky - we reach the summit.
‘What do you think?’ I say to Uisdean again. I think this situation stinks. We took a gamble with the weather and conditions and it hasn’t paid off. But what if we keep going? What would happen if I took the gear and pushed on? We’d probably be able to climb this 1000 metre route of rocky slush, but it would take all week. Did we just talk ourselves out of a route or are we being sensible climbers, learning, experiencing, attempting?
After a lot of silence, we start to rig an abseil.
In the three weeks we’ve been in Canada, we’ve attempted routes on Mt. Kitchener, Mt. Andromeda and Mt. Alberta. But we’ve succeeded on Mt. Temple. Most people would’ve probably just stayed in bed all month.
We checked out the north face of Mt. Alberta a couple of days ago. It looked wintery, rimed, Scottish and totally buried in snow. There was very little ice evident and the powder snow looked like we’ll be wading to the base, wading over the schrund, wading up the icefield, and then dry tooling up the headwall. The balcony (where you rap down to the base of the route) was totally banked out with snow and we couldn’t see the rappels anywhere. At least it ruled out our first choice: the Walsh/Brazeau route.
We talked and debated for hours whilst cooking dinner that evening, but the mountain looked like a total Weston-Super-Mare. Either we’d be too slow, or we’d be unable to climb the rocky pitches, or we’d be drowned in spindrift in the strong westerly winds.
Or...? How do we know we’re not being soft? Is it just experience that gives you the knowledge of saying, ‘up’ or ‘down?’ Because every time we’ve had to make a decision, to choose up or down, I think we’ve made the right decision... but I’m not certain. And I’m losing a lot of sleep over it.
Thankfully, we’ve been given a bit of luck. The weather for our final ten days looks good, and we’re determined to try again. The snow will hopefully consolidate, ice will form, and we’ll drink some concrete to harden ourselves up!